Short Cuts to Where?

Class over nation? A left argument for independence.

In a typically thoughtful piece (Short Cuts), Rory Scothorne argues that the Scottish Labour left have seized the moment, and that the 2014 enthusiasm for independence can be diverted from a managerial SNP to a Labour movement which has moved left.

The SNP do indeed remain centrist and managerial on many fronts, and centralising in ethos, but the most recent programme for government (‘A Nation with Ambition’)  showed some indications of movement in a more social democratic direction. Notably this included the prospect of progressive tax increases. The SNP’s initial proposals were cautious, but now may end up more radical than Labour’s own plans. Labour sought increases for everyone, including in the lowest tax brackets, whereas the Greens, for example, proposed cuts for lower earners and sharper increases for high earners, up to a 60% rate on earnings over £150,000 (see chart 6 on p29 here). The SNP will soon set out where they want to go on this, and perhaps Labour will be proved right. We shall see.

Another notable proposal, one of those relatively unusual examples where SNP arguments about the limits of devolution do hold, was to do research into a basic income for Scotland. Although implementation would require Westminster’s consent, this would clearly outflank Labour from the left and require the largest redistribution from rich to poor ever delivered in Scotland.

Labour – and Scothorne personally – continue to be sceptical about basic income, with the notable exception of the Shadow Chancellor. The party’s historic association with the unions, although typically more performative than real in government, often means a kind of “workerism” where concern about low pay is accepted as valid but concern about those without work fades away. This trend applies across the party, from Rachel Reeves’ March 2015 assertion that “We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work”, through to Scothorne himself, who wrote about it a month earlier without even mentioning unemployment. His piece calls for a “workers’ government”, again putting the unemployed, students, carers, and all those who cannot work just out of earshot. Basic income not only gives workers leverage, but it strengthens the hand of those out of work. Either you means-test and operate some kind of sanctions, or you do not. If you oppose basic income you must be prepared to back the kind degrading treatment of the unemployed which both Labour and the Tories have fostered, albeit perhaps a moderated version.

To be a little more generous, there is a valid critique of centrist nationalism in this piece, and indeed of centrist non-nationalist support for independence. If offered a choice between independence alone and defeating the class warfare of rich against poor, I am confident that left supporters of independence, whether nationalist or not, would take an end to the kind of capitalism both Labour and the Conservatives have supported since the collapse of the Butskellite consensus. Independence alone – with no actual change that redistributes power and wealth – is of interest only to shortbread tin nationalists and those who already do well out of the current economic settlement. So why not choose class, choose an imagined Britain that works for all, where worker solidarity runs from Cornwall to Caithness via Carmarthen?

(Incidentally, it is notable that the new left unionists believe such solidarity is peculiarly incapable of crossing nation state boundaries, despite the fact that so many of the businesses they need to organise within and against cross those same boundaries with ease. Surely we need stronger unions, international unions, not ones which have their horizons limited by state borders.)

“Scothorne describes the idea of a better Scotland after independence as an invitation to “cross a purely speculative bridge”, and that’s true. We’ve never done it, and it might not work. However, we have elected several Labour governments over the last century, and we still have vulture capitalism, a dying planet, and a moribund democracy. We can either keep trying the same thing over and over again, and each and every time experiencing crushing disappointment, or we can try something new.”

The answer of course is that Westminster itself, irrespective of party, operates as an intrinsic bulwark of class privilege, a centralised structure which manufactures and sustains inequality of power and money. Whether or not you can achieve socialism in one country, you certainly cannot achieve it when a 35.2% share of the vote may be sufficient to make a majority for Tony Blair or 36.8% give a majority to David Cameron. You cannot achieve it when an unelected peerage still sit, or where corporate interests are legitimised by their interweaving with medieval flim-flam.

The limit of your ambition there would be the kind of social democracy an Attlee government might deliver, important reforms for sure, but vulnerable to rollback at any time by a government elected with a minority of the vote or bogged down by peers. If Corbyn can get elected, achievements on that scale would be impressive and worthwhile, but potentially transient, even assuming the civil service, the markets and the media establishment don’t block it altogether – 2017 is not much like 1945.

This kind of starry-eyed analysis really only plays well with people who don’t remember the grinding mediocrity of Labour governments at Westminster – an improvement on the active degradation of our economy and public realm by Conservative governments – but that’s hardly a challenging bar to get over. Even Blair managed that. But still, this is the party of the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act and much more anti-migrant legislation, of NHS Foundation Hospitals, of tuition fees and PFI. Not one of the Thatcherite privatisations was overturned between 1997 and 2010.

Scothorne describes the idea of a better Scotland after independence as an invitation to “cross a purely speculative bridge”, and that’s true. We’ve never done it, and it might not work. However, we have elected several Labour governments over the last century, and we still have vulture capitalism, a dying planet, and a moribund democracy. We can either keep trying the same thing over and over again, and each and every time experiencing crushing disappointment, or we can try something new.

If the left in England want to achieve socialism, sustainability, an end to discrimination and all the rest I suggest they also need to find a way to change Westminster itself out of all recognition first, a goal Scottish independence would undoubtedly have helped deliver. Nationalism itself is of no interest to me, but Westminster embodies the class war of rich against poor, the protection of class privilege and the supremacy of the markets. To hope it is instead a plausible tool for ending those things it exists to maintain is a gamble it would be foolish to take while there is such an obvious alternative.

Our success isn’t guaranteed, and plenty of the resistance a true left government would face in Westminster would also manifest itself here: but if you do value class over nation, the possibility of seeing it happen in an independent Scotland should be more appealing than yet another mirage at Westminster.

Comments (14)

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  1. Archie Thomson says:

    ‘Independence alone – with no actual change that redistributes power and wealth – is of interest only to shortbread tin nationalists and those who already do well out of the current economic settlement. ‘

    This is a fallacy. Independence would necessarily mean a change in wealth and power distribution, if only by redistributing existing Westminster wealth and power back to Holyrood.

    If by no other measure, simply removing the un-elected House of Lords from the governance of Scotland IS a redistribution of wealth and power. If you can’t see this, then your whole logic is suspect and must be dismissed.

    Really this whole thing reads like a Momentum supporter demanding Independence be dropped in favour of a ‘genuine’ socialist movement. Poor logic, and a facile argument.

    1. Alan Bissett says:

      “this whole thing reads like a Momentum supporter demanding Independence be dropped”

      Em, what article did you read? It literally argues the opposite.

  2. Neil Anderson says:

    There has never been a left wing government in Westminster.

    1. Isabel Cooke says:

      1945? Give Nye some credit!

  3. Justin Kenrick says:

    Excellent piece.

    And where does this interact with Brexit?

    Maybe that’s a completely different article, but curious to hear your thinking.

  4. Angus Calder says:

    Thanks for the piece (and ignore the head-bangers ^).

    Particularly struck by your comment about left-leaning unionists apparent flat inability to imagine how solidarity might work across national borders… Strikes me that working on that might be profoundly useful preparation for both the next referendum and, (assuming we win it), actually being a decent wee country…

    While we may question how realistic ‘class before nation’ unionists like Scothorne are being, I think it’s really important to do as you have done, ie fully acknowledge their good faith.

    I also keep having this recurring thought; while we bide our time till the next referendum, is it really literally impossible for the unionist left and the indy left to work together where possible?

  5. Bill Weir says:

    Good article James. As an over 60 I voted Labour for 38 years and it got us to where we are today.

  6. Alf Baird says:

    There is a useful and interesting focus on ‘class’ here, but perhaps the emphasis ignores the importance of ‘culture’? The British ‘union’ is largely about merging cultures, often through coercion, and aided by state propaganda; ‘unionism’ after all is a ‘nationalist political ideology’. For example, British Tory ideology is forced on Scotland; Scots do not vote for this Tory ideology, just as most Scots did not vote for brexit. Even the English language is forced on Scots bairns, by law, and the law refuses (prohibits?) tae lairn Scots bairns thair ain mither tung. Coercion, British nationalist coercion. This, yes alien, political/ideological/social culture is therefore forced on Scots. Culture is about ‘the way we do things’, aspects of which can endure even in the midst of political oppression, however subtle, or not (e.g. Spanish ‘unionist’ (i.e. Spanish nationalist) treatment of Catalonia and its people). If Holyrood shows us anything it is that Scots do things, and want to do things, very differently than our neighbours across the border; their culture is their concern, though currently ‘their’ culture is being forcibly imposed on us, which in turn is British nationalist oppression (of whatever ‘class’, left or right, might dictate). This is certainly evident with devolved powers, Scots do do things differently, and there is no reason to suggest it would not also be the case with reserved powers assumed by Scotland after independence. These are not therefore necessarily class issues, they are essentially cultural issues and cultural decisions. Class, on the other hand, which may be considered differently in different cultures, seems merely to represent a part of one’s culture.

  7. Jamsie says:

    And Nationalists would force independence on us even though most Scots did not vote for it in 2014 and still do not want it.
    The false mandate claimed following the referendum on UK membership of the EU clearly cuts no ice with Scots who still reject the arguments for Independence.
    What the article highlights for me and I think that Mrs Sturgeon has grasped this is that a large part of her voting demographic is made up left wing, republican types who see the route to independence coming via the SNP but as soon as it might be achieved they would jump ship back to their historical allegiance and confine the SNP to years in the political wilderness with no active part to play.
    All the while Scotland would be slowly bankrupted by policies which we could not afford.
    The fact that she has already alienated a huge part of the core SNP support i.e. those SNP supporters who voted leave, the fishermen in the north east heartlands and the farming land owning gentry aka the tartan tories is obvious.
    She knows she is now reliant on central belt and particularly west of Scotland lefties to maintain her position has head of a political minority administration and that must be a concern.
    Trying to be more left wing than the labour and other likeminded parties will lose her further votes amongst the falling core support and the result will be seen in the next Scottish elections in the form of gains in the north to the lib dems and in the central belt to labour.
    She knows it and does not know how to reverse it.
    So rather than consider unionist philosophy is forced on Scots which it is not the view should be that it is demanded by Scots at the ballot box.
    And very soon we will see the correction in Scottish politics which is long overdue.

    1. Alan Bissett says:

      It’s a nightmare for Sturgeon.

      Support for independence is rising in the opinion polls, and given how Brexit is playing out that’s only likely to continue;

      She has a cast-iron mandate to hold a referendum before the next Holyrood election, which is quite some time away;

      The ‘strength and security’ case for the UK is in absolute pieces;

      Scottish Labour and the Tories will not be able to work together in another Better Together alliance, given the last one vapourised Labour;

      The No campaign has no further ‘Vow’-style inducements to make for wavering voters;

      The No campaign has no obvious or credible leaders beyond Ruth Davidson, who will repel Labour voters;

      The oil price has gone back up and a major new field is being developed off Caithness;

      Scotland is on the verge of being accepted into an Arctic Alliance of nations developing and exporting renewable energy;

      Ireland has just shown that an independent Scotland backed by the EU would have a strong negotiating hand to play against rUK;

      and the compromise reached between N.Ireland, the Republic and the UK govt over the last few days has show that a hard border between Scotland and England after independence is largely a fiction.

      The Unionist argument has literally been reduced to: “But you’ve already had a referendum.”

      Aye, she must be pure shitein it, mate.

      1. Jamsie says:

        Real politic obviously escapes you.
        The oil price has risen!?
        An EU backed Scotland??
        Cast Iron Mandate ……last time I looked the electorate were emphatically against another referendum and Westminster had refused permission for one.
        The EU have already said the whole of the UK leaves and as for the Irish border issue influencing any change in this position you really have not grasped what is going on.
        The border position is far from settled and won’t be until the trade talks have been completed.
        If these end with no deal it will be the EU who imposed the hard border not the UK.
        Furthermore the DUP remain the key to everything and if they don’t like what is agreed will simply withdraw support for the government which will most likely result in a general election before Brexit is implemented.
        All the while wee Nicola will be confined to the sidelines trying Twitter her tuppence worth to a fawning pro Indy minority.
        By the time all this takes place the elections for the Scottish Administration will come round and she will lose further support.
        In fact after next week’s budget I fully expect her ratings to plummet even further and support for the SNP to fall as she will have alienated another important section of the electorate.
        It will be expensive bring a hard working Scot in Scotland.

        1. Wul says:


          Mandates are won in elections. They are not created in opinion polls, tabloid newspapers or gifted by Mrs May.

          The SNP stood (twice) on a clear election manifesto of a second indyref if Scotland was threatened with leaving the EU against the majority of Scottish people’s wish.

          They won both those elections on that premise and the June 2016 EU vote met that manifesto criteria.

          Therefore the SNP have a mandate for second referendum. What is it about the above logic that you dispute?

          You may not like it, but its a fact. Would you deny the legitimacy of your own country’s parliament?

    2. Clive Scott says:

      Dream on Jamsie. Suggest you check out polling evidence. Of the most recent 29 polls, SNP in lead in 27 of them. Most recent indy poll was 47% YES, so an advance on Indyref1 despite the best efforts of right and left unionist MSM since 2014. Roll on Indyref2.

  8. Charles L. Gallagher says:

    That reform is needed in this country is not disputed but the extreme left approach of ‘Momentum’ is not the answer. Momentum is just the tired old extreme Marxist left ‘Militant’ repackaged and re-branded. Sure we want a ‘Socially just and Fair Independent Scotland’ but adopting Momentum’s policies would leave Scotland bankrupt. Derek Hatton tried it in Liverpool and virtually bankrupted that fine city and more recently you need look no further than Greece or Venezuela.

    We need change but the Corbyn, Leonard, Momentum way is the wrong way. The Scandinavian way looks to be a far better prospect and one that voters are likely to buy into.

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